China's Tiangong-1 space station is falling to Earth, but it probably won't crush you

China's Tiangong-1 space station is falling to Earth, but it probably won't crush you
A rocket carrying Shenzhou-9 crewed spacecraft on June 16, 2012.

Image: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

China’s Tiangong-1 space station is hurtling through Earth’s atmosphere, on a death dive to end its 7-year journey in space. 

The station, which is a bit smaller than a bus, is expected to fall into Earth’s atmosphere sometime between March 29 and April 9, according to new estimates put out by the European Space Agency (ESA) this week.

But we don’t know where exactly it will re-enter, nor will we get any clarity on that question anytime soon. 

“Since it could come down at any time in that [time] period, it could come down anywhere it passes over during that period,” astronomer Jonathan McDowell said via email. 

“We won’t have the faintest clue more precisely where until a few hours before reentry, and maybe not even then,” he added.

While most of Tiangong-1 — which translates to Heavenly Palace in English — will burn up harmlessly in our planet’s atmosphere, some relatively small parts of it may make it all the way to Earth’s surface. 

That said, the likelihood that the station will re-enter over a populated area is extremely slim. 

Most of Earth’s surface is covered in water or unpopulated, so the chances that any piece of space debris will impact a high-density population is pretty low. 

According to McDowell, the re-entry itself probably won’t end up being that big of a deal.

“A similar size object reentered over Peru in January (the Zenit rocket stage from the Angosat-1 launch) and a few pressurized tank pieces were found on the ground, but pretty much no-one paid attention,” McDowell said.

Space enthusiasts have been watching out for the Tiangong-1 re-entry for some time now. 

In 2016, rumors started to circulate that the station was out of control and heading back through the atmosphere. Since then, people have been keeping a close eye out for the moment that the station re-enters.

Tiangong-1 launched to space in 2011 and was visited by Chinese astronauts — called taikonauts — twice in its lifetime. 

The final crew of taikonauts left the station in 2013, and China launched its Tiangong-2 space station in 2016. The nation plans to eventually launch a larger-scale station sometime in the 2020s.

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